America adds forests, losing towns

Clinton is taking steps to protect more national forests from

Throughout the 20th century, towns like Tillamook, Ore., and Aberdeen, Wash., produced the lumber and paper pulp that helped power the nation's economy.

For most young men in such rural communities, getting a lifetime job that would support a family simply meant joining their father and uncles at the mill the day after high-school graduation - if they waited that long.

But today, many communities in rural forest areas are hurting badly.

For a variety of reasons - technology, fluctuations in international markets, and changing sensibilities about the environment - their prime source of income has dropped dramatically. As a result, funds for schools, roads, and other services are down sharply.

As counties freeze salaries and lay off teachers, there is virtually universal agreement that a system designed nearly a century ago must change, that a way must be found to balance economic stability in struggling remote areas with environmental protection.

"There is no reason the richest nation on earth should be funding the education of our rural kids at the expense of our national forests," says Forest Service chief Michael Dombeck.

In more than 700 counties in 42 states, local revenues are connected to income derived from logging on national forests. Under federal laws dating back to 1908, 25 percent of that revenue has gone to rural areas that could not collect property taxes from the federal forest lands surrounding them.

"The loss of [timber] funding has been catastrophic to our school district," says James Parsons, school superintendent in California's Alpine County. The 200-student district has laid off two of its 15 teachers, frozen salaries, and canceled field trips, Mr. Parsons told a congressional hearing.

Most of the affected communities are in the West, particularly the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. But communities across the country have been affected as well. Schools in Florida's Liberty County have cut 11 staff positions, increased the average class size from 23 to 28, eliminated certified art and music teachers in the grade schools, and cut some vocational arts programs. "I am looking at over 35 kids in some classes," says superintendent Hal Summers.

The National Education Association calls it "a time of crisis for many forest county education systems," but there are other social impacts.

"Rural communities have also suffered from severe economic downturns, causing high unemployment, domestic violence, substance abuse, and family dislocation," says Rep. Allen Boyd (D) of Florida. "They are finding it difficult to recruit new business and to meet the demands of health and social issues associated with the displacement and unemployment."

Over the past decade, timber harvests in national forests have declined 70 percent, resulting in a 36 percent drop in payments to counties. In some areas, the issue is tied to a Forest Service philosophy that is shifting (however slowly) from an emphasis on "getting out the cut" on national forests to protecting habitat for endangered species. In large measure this has been forced by lawsuits and legislation dealing with declining species such as the northern spotted owl and salmon in the Northwest, the red-cockaded woodpecker in the South.

This has heightened political tensions, not only over the amount of timber harvest allowed, but also regarding unpaved national forest roads. Such roads allow access to loggers, hunters, and hikers. But they're also a prime cause of erosion, which is highly damaging to wildlife.

On Oct. 9, local officials and their supporters gathered in Elko County in Nevada, vowing to open a road that had been closed by the Forest Service in order to protect wildlife habitat. They were blocked when a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting local officials from reopening the road with bulldozers and hand tools.

Such efforts by "wise use" and "country rights" proponents are matched by environmentalists trying just as hard to keep the roads closed. In the Mt. Hood National Forest east of Portland, Ore., protesters have faced off against Forest Service officials over a proposed timber sale, blocking access to loggers and deer hunters.

In Congress, there are several proposals to help economically distressed communities. One (favored by the timber industry and some local officials) would require the Forest Service to generate more income from logging on public lands. Another would provide impacted counties with guaranteed payments from the US Treasury during a period of economic transition.

Despite the political clout of Western lawmakers, a return to the old days and old ways of massive logging seems unlikely. According to one poll, 69 percent of Americans favor an end to tree-cutting on national forests. This reflects not only the differences in regional perceptions, but also the evolution from the "old West" of logging, mining, and ranching to the "new West" of tourism, urban emigrs, and high-tech industries.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.